Almost any sufficiently devout Canadian Catholic (and likely many devout Catholics from around the world) will have heard the name of Jean Vanier repeated in glowing terms.
After founding L’Arche, an international constellation of humanitarian communities for the intellectually disabled, he became one of Canada’s most well-known Catholic heroes. There are numerous schools and organizations named after him across the country. He is a recipient of the prestigious Order of Canada and was once nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. When he died in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly praised him for making the world “a better, more inclusive place.”
Now his own organization has released the results of an independent investigation that shows he engaged in sexually abusive relationships with at least six women, including workers in L’Arche communities and Catholic nuns.
The relationships took place over the course of a 35-year span between 1970 and 2005. The women were not intellectually disabled community members, but L’Arche’s inquiry found that Vanier used his position as a spiritual figure to exercise power over the women he abused:
The relationships involved various kinds of sexual behaviour often combined with so-called ‘mystical and spiritual’ justifications for this conduct. The relationships were alleged to have taken place under conditions the inquiry team label as ‘psychological hold’ and are described as emotionally abusive and characterized by significant imbalances of power, whereby the alleged victims [felt] deprived of their free will and so the sexual activity was coerced or took place under coercive conditions… Several of the women stated that they were vulnerable at the time and Jean Vanier was aware of this.
The women involved testified that they felt unable to object to Vanier’s advances or discuss their feelings with others because Vanier was so widely adored within the Church. He twisted that to his advantage by casting his relationships with the women in spiritual terms.
It is Jesus who loves you through me. This is not us, this is [the Virgin] Mary and Jesus. You are chosen, you are special, this is secret.
Understandably, the Church’s overall negativity and secrecy around sex contrasted with the mystical language employed by a respected Catholic mentor characterized as “like a living saint” left his victims feeling spiritually confused and morally uncertain. Most of the women spent years wrestling the shadow that Vanier’s manipulation left on their lives and relationships.
L’Arche says they first discovered evidence of Vanier’s abuses when investigating his mentor, Dominican priest Father Thomas Philippe, who had Vanier under his tutelage at his contemplative training centre l’Eau Vive (Living Water) at the same time as he was spiritually coercing women into sexual relationships in the 1950s.
When he was caught in 1952, he turned over leadership of l’Eau Vive to an inexperienced 24-year-old Vanier, continuing to run the organization from behind the scenes. Vanier described himself as Philippe’s “spiritual son.” He wasn’t kidding.
A 1956 canonical trial found that long before Vanier, Philippe used spiritual manipulation to get women to have sex with him, challenging women to perform acts of faith that were sexual in nature. Letters dating back to that time show that Catholic officials spoke to Vanier and his colleagues in person as well as in writing, outlining the charges against Philippe, who was deposed (expelled from the priesthood).
Following Philippe’s deposition, Vanier maintained a close relationship with the ex-priest against the advice of the Church. Philippe continued to mentor Vanier with a hefty dose of the mystical theology that had helped him manipulate so many women into sex. In return, Vanier involved Philippe in the founding of L’Arche, which gave him the opportunity to resume the very priestly activities that enabled him to abuse women in the 1950s.
L’Arche explained in very clear terms what their investigators learned about Vanier’s role in Philippe’s subsequent acts of abuse:
Because Jean Vanier did not denounce the theories and practices of Father Thomas Philippe of which Jean Vanier was personally aware as early as the 1950s, it was possible, for Father Thomas Philippe to continue his sexual abuse of women in L’Arche and it allowed Father Thomas Philippe to expand his spiritual influence on founders and members of other communities.
The investigation heard allegations that Jean Vanier was aware of other situations of psychological or sexual abuse of L’Arche assistants by another person. Despite Jean Vanier’s denials when questioned by L’Arche International officials, his knowledge of at least some of the facts seems to be proven.
Nonetheless, when Vanier addressed Philippe’s subsequent abuses in 2015, he spoke of them as new and shocking information. Abuse? In my ministry?!?
He went on to condemn them (just barely) in the weakest possible terms:
On one hand, I heard the accusations and denunciations made concerning Père Thomas. He hurt mature and intelligent people who appear to have placed all their trust in him… On the other hand, I need to affirm my own experience and gratitude toward Père Thomas. In regards to my life journey, he was an instrument of God.
After receiving resoundingly negative feedback on that tepid response, Vanier returned with a second letter explicitly condemning Philippe’s “sexual perversion.” The words ring hollow and hypocritical, though, when coupled with the knowledge of how closely he repeated the very same “perversion.”
Now the current leaders of L’Arche, Stephan Posner and Stacy Cates Carney, are in the position of having to write a similar condemnatory letter condemning Vanier:
We are shocked by these discoveries and unreservedly condemn these actions, which are in total contradiction with the values Jean Vanier otherwise stood for. They are incompatible with the basic rules of respect and dignity of persons, and contrary to the fundamental principles on which L’Arche is based.
We recognize the courage and suffering of these women, and of any others who may not have spoken up. We also want to express our gratitude to the women who, by speaking out a few years ago about Father Thomas Philippe, helped others to liberate themselves of a burden of shame and suffering they did not deserve to be carrying. To all of them, we ask forgiveness for these events which took place in the context of L’Arche, some of which were caused by our founder.
Unlike Vanier, they seem to have done a decent job sticking the landing.
The director of L’Arche Canada, Louis Pilotte, adds that most of the community is shocked and upset by the information:
When we read the investigation report, we were devastated. For most L’Arche leaders, it is a shock. For all of us, it’s a situation we couldn’t have imagined… The impact of this news will be devastating. The shock will be felt far beyond L’Arche and the Catholic community. Jean was a figure recognized everywhere, in all religions.
His American equivalent, Tina Bovermann, echoes the sentiment but adds that it’s important to have the truth come out, even if it’s ugly:
The value of every person matters. Always. Unconditionally. Particularly when marginalized and silenced for many years.
(Screenshot via YouTube)